August 21 – August 28, 2015

Friday, August 21

Mark 15:22-32: There is a measure of irony in the fact that today’s readings present us with two scenes associated with Rome’s soi disant justice: the official execution of Jesus and the criminal case against the Apostle Paul.

As he hangs on the Cross, Jesus is mocked by the cruelty of those who witness his execution. Mark describes this mockery as “blasphemy,” the identical charge brought against Jesus by his enemies (cf. Mark 2:7; 14:64). The blasphemers repeat the charge, originally made in the house of the high priest, that Jesus would destroy the temple.

It is most significant that at the moment of Jesus’ death, the presiding centurion confesses Jesus as God’s Son (15:39), in contrast to this “blasphemy.”

Acts 25:1-12: At the end of the two years, Felix is succeeded by Portius Festus, who inherits Paul as a bit of unfinished business. This new procurator, a conscientious man chiefly remembered for his efforts to stamp out the terrorism prevalent in the Middle East during that time (cf. Josephus, Jewish War 2.14.1 [271-272]; Antiquities>/i> 2.8.9-10 [182,185]), must deal with Paul as the first chore of his two years in office (59-61/62). He does so in less than a fortnight. The authorities in Jerusalem, of course, want Paul to be tried there, all along planning that Paul would never reach the city for his trial. The times are treacherous.

The substance of Paul’s defense (apologoumenou) in this section is that he has violated no law, whether of the Jewish religion or of the Roman Empire (25:8). His accusers, moreover, have not met their burden of proof (25:7). Festus, however, unwilling to offend the Jewish leadership so early in his administration, proposes a compromise: a trial at Jerusalem, over which the governor himself would preside (25:9).

Paul will have none of this compromise. He already stands before an imperial court as a Roman citizen; why should he forego that privilege in order to expose himself to a Jewish lynch mob? Therefore, he appeals his case to Rome. It is worth noting, in verse 11, Paul’s explicit recognition of the state’s proper authority to use the death penalty, the “right of the sword” (jus gladii), on certain classes of criminals. This position is identical to the one earlier espoused by Paul in Romans 13:1-4. Accordingly, the Christian Church, even when discouraging recourse to capital punishment in practice (in the Byzantine Empire, for instance), has always recognized, as a matter of clear principle, the state’s God-given, biblically affirmed authority to put certain criminals to death.

Saturday, August 22

Acts 25:13-27: We come now to Paul’s somewhat unofficial hearing before King Agrippa II and his sister/mistress Berenice. The purpose of this hearing is to help Festus identify the charges for which Paul will be sent to Rome for trial. Thus, Paul, having been tried before a synagogue and a governor, will now appear before a king (cf. Luke 21:12).

Judges 1: The Book of Judges begins with the word “and,” indicating that it forms a kind of continuation of the Book of Joshua, where the various areas of the Promised Land were bequeathed by right to Israel’s sundry tribes. Now the time has come to conquer those territories, and this chapter briefly recounts the efforts of conquest made by Judah (verses 3-21), Joseph (verses 22-29), and the other tribes (verses 30-36). This narrative reflects the actual political situation that came to pass, namely, the dominance of Judah to the south and of Joseph (Ephraim/Manasseh) to the north.

These efforts of conquest were determined by an “inquiry” made of the Lord (verse 1), evidently by following the procedure indicated in Numbers 27:18-21. Indeed, the final verse of that procedure forbade any sort of military action without the prior inquiry’s having been taken.

Leading the way, Judah will be the first to “go up” (ya‘aleh— verse 2), fulfilling the prophecy of Jacob to Judah in Genesis 49:9: “Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up (‘alita).” Simeon goes with Judah (verse 3), following the pattern set already set in Joshua 19:1-9, which apportioned Simeon’s lot with that of Judah. The latter tribe would eventually absorb the former, and this text reflects that later political condition.

The character known as Adoni Bezek (verses 4-7) had ruled over seventy other kings. This number, when referring to nations, symbolizes international power. Thus, we find seventy nations named in the Bible’s first list of the nations (Genesis 10), and it was for this reason that Jesus, empowering His apostles for universal ministry to the whole world, numbered them at seventy (Luke 10). Hence, the defeat of Adoni Bezek, the ruler over seventy nations, is of a kind of international significance. Judah, in defeating Adoni Bezek, symbolically frees these seventy nations, a fact of great theological significance. The oppressor of these nations is slain at Jerusalem (verse 8), where God will, in due course, defeat by the power of the Cross those demonic forces of which Adoni Bezek is both an instrument and a foretype.

Sunday, August 23

Mark 15:42-47: Because Jesus could not rise from the grave unless He had been buried, an explicit insistence on His burial may be noted in the Church’s earliest proclamation. Paul himself, who knew its importance from the earlier tradition (1 Corinthians 15:4), included it in his own preaching (Acts 13:29) and writing (Romans 6:4). All the canonical Gospels, moreover, agree that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Sanhedrin. Matthew and John identify him as a “disciple.”

In all of the Gospels, Joseph’s actions are contrasted with those of the other members of the Sanhedrin. Whereas they blindfolded, mocked, and abused Jesus, Joseph treats even his dead body with dignity and respect.

Although executed criminals were often buried in a common grave, or even left as carrion for wild beasts, Joseph carefully places the body of Jesus in a special tomb, a place befitting the dignity of the coming Resurrection.

An image of Jesus lying in Joseph’s grave is inscribed on the antimens on every altar of the Orthodox Church. Facing that image each Sunday during Matins, the priest proclaims one of the Resurrection accounts from the Gospels. The altar is thus preeminently the liturgical situs of the Resurrection.

Michelangelo, in his final and less famous Pieta, the one at Florence, portrayed Joseph of Arimathea in his own likeness. I have long thought, similarly, that that just man who buried Jesus in his own sepulcher serves as a model for all believers. That tomb, originally planned for Joseph, has been unoccupied these many centuries, a symbol of the hope we have for our own graves.

Acts 26:1-11: There is a sense in which the present speech of Paul is the high point of Luke’s account of his ministry. Containing the third narrative of Paul’s conversion, it will represent a fulfillment of a prophecy contained in the first narrative (9:15), namely, he will now appear before a king. Paul’s apologetics (apologeito in verse 1, apoplogeisthai in verse 2) in this speech is consonant with his legal defense hitherto, but he becomes more explicit about his faith and his conversion.

Legally Paul has nothing to lose, for his appeal to a higher court at Rome has already been granted. He will use the present circumstances as an opportunity, rather, to bear witness to the Gospel, which he treats as the fulfillment of the hope he had always cherished as a loyal Pharisee (verse 5; cf. 24:5; 28:22). That is to say, the hope of the resurrection (verse 8). At this point Paul begins to move from apologetics to evangelism.

Monday, August 24

Judges 3: Ehud was the Benjaminite leader charged to carry Israel’s tribute to Moab’s big, fat king, Eglon, under whom Israel was oppressed for eighteen years. Raised up by God, Ehud resolved to set the Israelites free, and today’s reading tells how he did it.

His first step was to procure what the King James Bible calls a “dagger.” This blade, however, specifically identified as double-edged, was longer than most daggers; its length was a cubit, the distance between a man’s elbow and the tip of his little finger.

Ehud concealed this cumbersome weapon under his clothing, attached along his right thigh, for he was, you see, a left-handed man. (This latter detail is ironic, because Ehud belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, a name meaning “son of my right hand.”)

Why, then, a weapon so large and therefore easier to detect? Well, Ehud had a plan. After dismissing his delegation, which had delivered the annual tribute to the Moabites, Ehud asked to speak to Eglon in private, mentioning that he had a message from God for the king. Eglon suspected nothing amiss; after all, the tribute had just been paid, and Ehud’s retinue had been sent away, nor did the man appear to be armed. The unsuspecting Eglon, therefore, took his visitor to the privacy of a cool apartment on his roof. When they were alone, Ehud’s left hand quickly reached under the garment covering his right leg and drew forth the long twin-edged blade. Suddenly, as hard as he could, he rammed it into the immense stomach of Eglon. He drove the point so forcefully that the entire length of the blade became buried in Eglon’s copious flesh. Indeed, the king’s flab oozed out around the haft and covered it, so that the weapon could not be extracted. That is to say, Eglon’s mid-section was large enough, front to back, to contain the entire cubit of steel.

Then, taking the king’s key and locking the door to the apartment, Ehud went out to rally the troops that he had placed on the road to Moab. Eglon’s astonished courtiers had barely discovered his corpse when Ehud returned with an army and took the Moabites by surprise at the fords of the Jordan. There he “killed about ten thousand men of Moab, all stout men of valor; not a man escaped” (Judges 3:29). Thus did Ehud deliver Israel from the oppressor.

The Christian reader of this text will find it rich in symbolism. He will not miss, for instance, the spiritual significance of the two-edged sword used to slay God’s glutted enemy. He will recognize the “power of the keys” symbolized in Ehud’s locking of Eglon’s door. We hope he will observe the reference to Holy Baptism, mystically signified in the fords of the Jordan, that sacramental river where God’s enemies are crushed and put to flight. Who, after all, is this Ehud? He is Christ our Savior, from whose mouth issues the sharp, two-edged sword of His holy Word (Revelation 19:15), in whose hand are the keys that lock so that no man may open (20:1; 3:7), whose forces are rallied at the fords of the Jordan, and whose Israelites are delivered from their oppressor.

Tuesday, August 25

Judges 4: The story of Deborah is chiefly preoccupied with two themes,
soteriology and the moral life:

First, soteriology. The Deborah story is mainly an account of God’s deliverance of Israel from her oppressing enemies (“And the Lord routed
Sisera”—Judges 4:15), and it stands within a lengthy series of such stories united mainly by this common theme. Indeed, if the several traditions within Judges, drawn from quite diverse local settings and tribal traditions, are joined by any element beyond mere chronology, the motif of God’s deliverance is certainly that element. The Book of Judges is essentially a detailed account of God’s repeated deliverance of His people through the agency of charismatic figures prior to the rise of the monarchy. The key to understanding Deborah, surely, is through that general consideration.

Second, the moral life: Here one readily admits that this consideration is of far less importance to the purposes of the Book of Judges. Truly, if the inculcating of moral example ranked very high among those purposes, it would be difficult to explain how some of the juicier stories in Judges ever managed to find their place at all! In the Deborah account, nonetheless, such a moral interest is certainly present, at least in a minor key, and it is to be discovered chiefly in the accented contrast between Deborah and the timid Barak.

Thus, St. Jerome observed that, if Barak had been a brave and decisive man to begin with, Deborah’s intervention in the battle with Sisera would not have been necessary. He went on to compare her to Mary Magdalene, whom the Gospels likewise show to have been a courageous woman at the time of the Lord’s death and burial, in conspicuous contrast to the intimidated, bewildered, and discouraged Apostles.

It is not surprising, then, that Christian readers have always seen the Deborah story as evidence of God’s equal regard for men and women.
Their comments in this respect are rooted, of course, in the particulars of the story itself. Indeed, the contrast between the forthright Deborah and the timid, reluctant Barak is one of the most obvious and entertaining examples of this literary technique in all of Holy Scripture. The robust directives of Deborah in Judges 4:6f (“Go . . . deploy . . . take”) are met by the poltroonish foot-dragging of Barak in verse 8. His pathetic response is composed of two hypothetical pronouncements that leave all the initiative to Deborah: “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go!” The very sounds of the
Hebrew text mimic both the bee-like, rapid-fire delivery of Deborah
(lek wumashakta . . . welaqahta) and the lifeless, melancholic mumbling of Barak (’im telki ‘immi wahalakti, we’im lo’ telki ‘immi lo’elek).

This amusing contrast is further heightened by the fact that Barak’s very name means “lightning bolt.” The energetic Deborah is manifestly frustrated, having a difficult time persuading this lightning to strike! A few verses later, Deborah must sting the sluggard again: Qum—“Up!” (4:14). This sharp command, qum, is repeated in the canticle in Judges 5:12.

Wednesday, August 26

Judges 5: In her canticle Deborah devotes some verses to a contrast between Jael and the mother of Sisera. This contrast encourages reflection on the violent action by which Jael slew Sisera. What does this story have to say about women in combat?

It is clear that the Bible, when it describes women fighting, does not expect them to “fight like men.” On the contrary, The Bible expects them to cheat and “fight dirty.”

Leave fighting aside for the moment, and just think of biblical women in tough situations. They were expected to bend the rules a bit. Even without actual fighting, the Bible is hardly offended that women now and then employed intrigue, chicanery, legerdemain, and a flexible approach to truth in order to attain their goals. I think of Rebecca, Abigail, Esther, Tamar in Genesis 38, Rahab of Jericho, Naomi and Ruth, Michal in 1 Samuel 19, Joab’s “actress” in 2 Samuel 14, and perhaps Bathsheba in 1 Kings 2. All of these women are portrayed as “inventive,” when the going got rough.

Nor does the Bible appear to be shocked that the “inventiveness” of some women occasionally took an aggressive turn. For instance, there was the blood-warming (and perhaps blood-curdling) enthusiasm of Miriam and Deborah, giving themselves to hearty, full-throated song over the dead bodies of their enemies. One likewise recalls the steady eye and strong arm of that millstone-tossing Shechemite lady who dispatched Abimelech with a severe headache in Judges 9. We may also mention the “wise counsel” of the anonymous female citizen of Abel Beth-Maachah who supervised an appropriate beheading in 2 Samuel 20.

The Bible offers even better examples. One is particularly struck by the similarities between the actions of the heroine of the Book of Judith and those of Jael in Judges 4. The villains in both cases, Holofernes and Sisera, were first lulled to sleep—one by warm milk, the other by wine—and then quickly dispatched with each lady’s weapon of choice:

Jael took a hammer and drove a tent peg into the sleeping head of Sisera. She slammed him so hard that the point of the peg came out the other side and went into the ground. Jael did all this after deceiving the man as someone who would protect him.

As for Judith, she did not wait for Holofernes to come to her. She went to him, and for the apparent purpose of showing him a good time. One is at a loss to explain this respectable widow, this almost monastic devotee of prayer and fasting, who plied her victim with alcohol, and then came walking home the next morning with a man’s head tucked in her purse. Goodness!

Not only are the exploits of Jael and Judith praised in song (Judges 5:24-27; Judith 15:12-13), but also both songs are full of raw mockery, elaborated in gory and relished detail (Judges 5:28-30; Judith 16:4-9).

Sisera and Holofernes were utter scoundrels, of course, but they were also first-rate suckers, to whose dim wits it had not occurred that females, when they fight, follow a completely different set of rules. No man would have been praised for doing such things: Although the Bible considered it very bad form for a fellow to slice up his sleeping enemy (1 Samuel 26:5-11; 2 Samuel 4:5-12), such a procedure was perfectly acceptable for women like Jael and Judith. That is to say, among gentlemen it was understood that girls do not fight fair. And if some fool did not know that, he got exactly what he deserved.
Thursday, August 27
Judges 6: It is a point of historical irony that the military success of Deborah and Barak, narrated in the two previous chapters, is what produced the crisis faced by Gideon in these new chapters. By his overthrow of the powerful Canaanite kings, Barak had removed a formidable military presence which prevented various tribes of Bedouin nomads, notably the Midianites and their confederates, from ravaging the cultivated fields, orchards, vineyards, and granaries of the Promised Land. Now, with the elimination of that impediment, those marauders could ride in on their camels and pillage the countryside at will.

Fearsome and unscrupulous predators, the Midianites were also cunning, for they habitually scheduled their invasions at harvest times, causing economic disaster, even famine, among the Israelites (cf. Ruth 1:1). Judges 6 describes how the Lord raised up Gideon as a champion to meet this crisis.

Gideon’s task, however, would be more than merely political and military, because the crisis itself was more than political and military. In the Bible’s analysis, the theological root of the problem was Israel’s infidelity to the Covenant of Mount Sinai. Beyond the political aspects of their plight, it was clear to Gideon that God was punishing the Israelites for their involvement in the worship of Canaanite gods, whose chief was Baal. Indeed, Gideon’s own father was a worshipper of Baal. The success of Gideon’s mission would depend, therefore, on his first addressing that theological root of the difficulty.

He did so at once, taking ten men to assist him in the overthrow of the Baal shrine maintained by his father. From that point on, events began to unroll pretty rapidly, for a large invasion force of Midianites and others suddenly arrived from the east, crossed the Jordan River, and camped in the fertile valley of Jezreel. Probably impressed by the sheer boldness of Gideon, manifest in his attack on the worship of Baal, his countrymen spontaneously accepted his leadership to meet the impending attack.

It was clear to everyone, anyway, that Gideon was in charge of the situation, for the Spirit of the Lord took decisive hold of him (Judges
6:34). The Hebrew verb used to describe this transformation is especially striking, for it literally says that the Spirit “clothed itself” (labshah) with Gideon. This expression, sometimes used for the putting on of armor, indicates that Gideon would serve as the instrument of God’s Spirit in the events to come.

The transformation of Gideon was evident to all. Whereas fear had prompted him to use the cover of night in destroying Baal’s shrine (6:27),
Gideon now began to act with open, executive boldness, sending out messengers to the other Israelites for their assistance in the impending battle.

Three scenes in particular have rendered most memorable the story
of Gideon:

First, there was a consultation of the Lord by means of “putting out a fleece” (6:36–40). The purpose of this experiment was to determine whether Gideon’s resolve was truly of God, and not simply a human impulse for glory and vengeance. Just as Israel’s crisis was radically spiritual, its resolution would have to be radically spiritual, so Gideon wanted to be quite certain that the new strength he felt was truly of the Holy Spirit, and not just a burst of what we today call adrenaline. It is most important not to confuse the flesh and the Spirit, especially during a crisis.

The second and third scenes are found in the next chapter.

Friday, August 28

Judges 7: This chapter gives the second and third scenes that render the story of Gideon so memorable:

Second, there was the curious exercise by which, at the Lord’s bidding, Gideon reduced the size of his gathered army. Indeed, the reduction was of ridiculous proportions—from thirty-two thousand to three hundred (7:1–8)! If this victory was to be truly of God, it was important that no human being could take credit for it, because the Sprit of God is not to be identified with any human force or fleshly impulse.

Third, there was Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites by the singularly improbable means of the breaking of jars and the blowing of trumpets
(7:15–23). This latter action is, of course, reminiscent of Joshua’s over- throw of the walls of Jericho and conveys the identical message. Namely, that God, alone victorious over His enemies, alone deserves the praise, a truth to which Gideon himself bore witness by his subsequent refusal to become king (8:22–23). This was a lesson God’s humbled people needed to learn, and their defeat of the Midianites would be in vain if they did not learn it.

Acts 27:30-44: To prevent the ship’s continuing progress toward the unknown land, drop four poop anchors from the stern to hold it back. The situation during the rest of the night is tense, and no one has eaten very much during the past two weeks of storm.

Finally it begins to grow light, and Paul suggests that breakfast would be a capital idea. Accordingly, he says grace. Everyone takes heart and begins to eat. Afterwards they throw the rest of the ship’s cargo overboard in order to make the ship ride higher in the waves as it approaches land. (That is to say, a lighter ship can be beached closer to the land.) They cut away the four anchors at the stern and endeavor, under foresail, to beach the ship on the shore of a bay. (This inlet, on the northeast coast of Malta, is still known locally as St. Paul’s Bay.) The ship, once its bow runs aground on a spar, begins to break up from the violence of the pooping waves. They all scramble for shore as best they can, and everyone arrives safely. It has been a very rough two weeks, and no one is sad that it is over.